Indian unmanned spacecraft enters lunar orbit

Officials say first unmanned spacecraft will send probe to moon's surface.

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By  AFP Published  November 9, 2008

India's first unmanned spacecraft entered lunar orbit Saturday, 18 days after an Indian-built rocket transported it into outer space, officials here announced.

"The motor on board Chandrayaan-1 was fired at 5.15pm (1145 GMT) for 805 seconds, which successfully put the spacecraft into lunar orbit," Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Director S. Satish announced.

"This was an extremely complex manoeuvre but we have achieved our mission of inserting the craft into lunar orbit without any hitch," an ISRO spokesman at the organisation's headquarters in Bangalore added.

Chandrayaan-1, which was launched on Oct. 22, entered the moon's space on Tuesday after orbiting the earth for several days.

Mission controllers hope the spacecraft's orbit will stabilise in about a week. It is then expected to send a probe to the moon's surface to carry out tests.

The ISRO mission control erupted in celebration as Chandrayaan-1 completed its manoeuvres and went into an orbit of the moon, said officials.

Mission chief N.S. Hedge said the last 20 minutes before the craft dropped into its planned orbit were the most anxious moments for ISRO scientists.

"We were looking at all possible contingencies - anything that can go wrong and we were preparing in our minds what measures we have to take because this mission is something that does not forgive us for the mistakes," Hedge said.

ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair was visibly jubilant.

"This will go down in the history of Indian space research in golden letters," Nair told reporters.

"No one else in the world perhaps would have got such a precise lunar orbit as India did in the first attempt and now India has a big leadership position as far as space is concerned," he added.

During a two-year orbital mission, the craft will provide a detailed map of the mineral, chemical and topographical characteristics of the moon's surface.

India is hoping the $80 million mission will boost its space programme into the same league as regional powerhouses Japan and China.

As well as looking to carve out a larger slice of the lucrative commercial satellite launch market, India, Japan and China also see their space programmes as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development.

Some critics, however, have questioned the sense in spending so much money on space when hundreds of millions of Indians still live in dire poverty.

India started its space programme in 1963, developing its own satellites and launch vehicles to reduce dependence on overseas agencies.

It first staked its case for a share of the commercial launch market by sending an Italian satellite into orbit in April last year. In January, it launched an Israeli spy satellite in the face of Iranian protests.

But it still has a long way to go to catch up with China which, together with the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency, is already well established in the commercial launch sector.

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